Is Netflix really able to produce “proper cinema”?

“Oh,” said the snooty voice in my head, “it’s Netflix.” 

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One of my favourite films of the year is Tamara Jenkins’s funny and searching comedy-drama Private Life, which stars Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a couple trying to conceive before turning, in desperation, to a surrogate mother close to home. The picture, produced by Netflix, was not screened in cinemas for UK press, as far as I know, though online viewing links were made available.

As is the way with selected Netflix films, Private Life played briefly in a handful of cinemas here and in the US. I happened to catch it at the IFC Centre in New York, not realising the movie’s provenance until the opening credits rolled. “Oh,” said the voice in my head, a little snootily. “It’s Netflix.” 

What’s that got to do with anything? Well, nothing – unless, like me, you still haven’t quite come to terms with the streaming revolution and how it is reshaping cinema. We all have our footling prejudices that surface now and then, and that’s one of mine. I see the Netflix logo and I instinctively think: “Ah. Not proper cinema, then.”

Which is crazy. Because Private Life unmistakably is cinema. Every detail of the compositions, the mise-en-scène, the placement of the actors, the amount of empty space in the frame – it’s all geared toward the larger medium and, unless you’re watching it on a mega-sized TV, you aren’t getting the full benefit or feeling the impact as the director intended.

And even if you do have the biggest TV screen in your whole street, larger even than some of your neighbours’ entire houses, you are still at home with the distractions of your phone and your pets and your children and the temptations of your larder (delete as applicable). So you aren’t able to engage fully with the film, not as you would if you were in a cinema. But you don’t go want to go to the cinema because, well, it’s expensive and everyone talks through the movie or plays on their phones, and despite the ad asking patrons to “Please Switch Off Your Mobile Devices”, no one ever does, and the management doesn’t care one way or the other. So you stay at home. Which is just where the streaming services want you to be.

They don’t really want you in the cinema. The strategy behind putting their movies there, even for the briefest of runs, is to win awards: a film must have enjoyed a theatrical release, even a small one, to become eligible for Oscars and Baftas. Some people also believe it lends extra validation to a movie if it has passed through cinemas on its way to being streamed.

But for a Luddite like me, who subscribes to streaming services yet may still feel pangs of guilt about watching films on those platforms rather than hunting them down on a big screen, the very idea of cinema as a “passing through” place, a pit-stop on the way to the main destination (TV), is anathema.

I have covered Netflix releases on the film pages of the New Statesman (my review of the Coen brothers’ portmanteau western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is in this week’s magazine) and will do so again: in a few weeks’ time, I’ll be reviewing Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, for example, which is out on 30 November and is widely expected to follow its Golden Lion win at this year’s Venice film festival with some Oscar and Bafta nominations. But still I feel a tinge of sadness knowing that the cinematic lives of all these pictures have been foreshortened.

I complained about the fate of the Coens’ film to a friend: how could it ever be regarded as an authentic movie, I bleated, when its contact with any actual cinemas had been so cursory?

“Okay,” he replied. “What about all those old films you grew up on – Buñuel, Fassbinder, Bergman, the greats? Where did you first see them?”

“On BBC2 or Channel 4 or video,” I replied. “But I knew they’d at least had a cinematic life before ending their days there on the small screen. Like free range animals, they had at least been allowed to roam widely prior to reaching the living room. They’d had the smell of fresh air in their nostrils.

“And there was a strong chance that they would roam again – isn’t there always a Buñuel or Fassbinder or Bergman season happening somewhere on the planet at any given time? Whereas for the movie produced by a streaming service, the ignominy is double: these animals barely get to canter around the paddock (be screened in cinemas) before arriving on our plates (television). And because they are then associated forever as TV product, the opportunities for them to return to cinemas (where they never really started out in the first place) will be greatly reduced.” 

“This is nuts,” he said. “Film as ‘meat’ that is then ‘killed’ when it turns up on TV? Films don’t have memories you know. They don’t feel, they aren’t sentient. A film is a film regardless of how long it has been in the cinema. You loved that British movie Daphne last year, yet how long was that in cinemas for? A week or two? Does that make it less of a film? Besides, haven’t you got better things to be moaning about in this of all weeks? I mean, come on. Brexit?”

“Call it displacement activity.”

“But didn’t this whole subject get started in your head because you wanted to write about Gus Van Sant’s new film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a couple of weeks ago? Except that the distributor only put on two screenings, one of which was after your deadline, and there was no screening link as backstop – sorry, I meant back-up – and that’s what made you realise that cinema release patterns had already changed almost beyond recognition while you weren’t paying attention? Why not just write about the Van Sant film?”
“I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the prejudices that analog creatures like myself are still lugging around with us. And also because the streaming service MUBI released the Van Sant film in the UK and I’m feeling disappointed in MUBI because I just discovered that its founder Efe Cakarel was one of the signatories on a letter ahead of the 2015 election arguing against a change in government and insisting that the Tories represented a safe pair of hands, and that it would be wrong to change course now.”

“And look where we are. So much for displacement, eh?”

“Wanna watch some Netflix?”

 ‘Private Life’ is on Netflix. ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’ is on Amazon Prime.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.